A vote against misgovernance

You think nobody saw that the BJP might lose the election? Allow me to quote from the ‘Swaminomics’ I wrote in December, after the NDA swept State Assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. It took the shape of an open letter to Vajpayee:

“Some of your colleagues believe that the BJP is enjoying a wave of popularity, and so want an early general election. In fact your party has lost so many state elections so often that any talk of a wave is pure delirium. Till the latest elections, your party ruled only in three states ( Gujarat , Jharkand and Goa ), a pathetic performance. If indeed state elections are a guide to a general election, then you have no hope at all, since the Congress still controls 12 states and you control only six.

“There is no pro-BJP wave. Rather, we have further confirmation that incumbent governments tend to be voted out. What is called the anti-incumbency factor is more properly called the misgovernance factor. The quality of governance continues to be so poor that, save in exceptional circumstances, the incumbent government gets voted out. Gujarat re-elected its ruling party in the exceptional communal climate following Godhra.

Delhi re-elected its ruling party because of exceptional performance, exemplified in the Delhi Metro. Elsewhere, whether your party lost (as in Himachal Pradesh) or won (as in the three big states last week), people voted against the incumbent government. Now, yours happens to be the incumbent government in New Delhi . You can hardly claim that the quality of governance nationally is exceptional. So, as the incumbent, you are in deadly danger. Don’t even think of any early election. Savour your current term to the last possible day. It may be your last ever.”

Needless to say, the BJP paid no notice. Political and media analysts are now providing many alternative reasons for the NDA defeat. But I smile at analyses that explain everything after the event and nothing before. I prefer the explanation I gave in advance. Three alternative explanations are that the NDA (a) ignored the poor; (b) had chieftains like Naidu and Jayalalitha who were autocratic and arrogant; (c) focussed on cities, not villages. Phooey! Consider these in turn.

Ignoring the poor. Poverty in India has fallen in all states in the 1990s, and income per head has grown faster than ever (4.2% annually). Despite this, voters have routinely sacked four-fifths of incumbents. Why? Because governance is so poor that even if incomes improve and poverty drops, people believe this is despite and not because of the government. Rich Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra have ousted almost all incumbent state governments for decades.

Arrogance and autocratic ways. Jayalalitha and Naidu are accused of these sins. But with the same sins they swept earlier Assembly elections. Mulayam, Mayawati and Laloo Yadav are all arrogant and autocratic, yet have fared well.

Pampering cities, ignoring villages. The BJP is accused of cosseting the urban middle class, and Naidu of pampering Hyderabad . But Naidu fared as badly in urban as in rural areas. Ironically, the Congress swept urban Delhi , Che-nnai and Mumbai. Whereas the NDA swept highly rural, poor states like Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Uttranchal, MP and Rajasthan. Despite Digvijay Singh’s empowering of tribals, the Congress was thrashed in both the state and Parliamentary elections in MP.

In almost all states, the swing went against the existing or recently ousted incumbents. It was largely a vote against local misgovernance. This is best shown by radically different outcomes in Jharkand and Chhattisgarh, both of which are poor, rural and tribal. The NDA swept Chhattisgarh, wh-ere the Congress had misruled for five years till last November. And the Congress swept Jharkand, where the NDA rules. Forget the rural-urban or rich-poor divide: voters voted against local misgovernance regardless of the party in office. The face of government seen by the rural voter is the patwari, thanedar, PWD engineer and SEB linesman. None is reformed. None is shining. Politicians are seen as venal rascals.

Besides, India has a multitude of parties and factions, so much depends on who allies with whom and where. Small swings in votes mean huge swings in seats. The Congress had better alliances than the NDA. Had the NDA not switched partners in Tamil Nadu from the DMK to the AIDMK, it would have won more seats than the Congress front.

More important, voters like change even in well-governed democracies. In badly governed countries like India , they oust incumbents with a vengeance. The poll result is a public outcry for better governance. Alas, I hear no response from the victor. The Congress prefers to harp on red herrings like rural neglect.

Sadly, neither the NDA nor the Congress want to focus on improving governance. All parties would rather share the spoils of misgovernance than reform the system. The new Congress-led government will not end misgovernance, merely change the beneficiaries.

What do you think?